‘Several Perceptions’ by Angela Carter

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‘What shall I do when I’m up and about again?’

‘You become a parasite on the state, my lover, just like me; it’s the twentieth-century way to live’.

Several Perceptions, Angela Carter, Pg.35

Angela Carter’s third novel, published in 1968, just a year after The Magic Toyshop, is a truthfully gritty and seedy account of life for the ‘provincial bohemia’ of the ‘Flower Power’ generation in the 1960s. Winner of the 1969 Somerset Maugham Award, Several Perceptions opened many doors for Carter, enabling her to leave her husband and travel to Japan (which inspired her anthology of short stories, Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces).

Written with Carter’s unique flair for decadence and grandeur, Several Perceptions explores the darker side of society – taboo subjects such as attempted suicide, prostitution, homelessness and pregnancy out of wedlock are all touched upon in this slim volume of just 148 pages. We are also made crucially aware of the historical backdrop that accompanies this era and initiates a call for widespread protest – the Vietnam War:

‘Every minute of the lonely nights was filled with dreams of fires quenched with blood and bloody beaks of birds of prey and bombs blossoming like roses with bloody petals over the Mekong Delta’.

Several Perceptions, Angela Carter, Pg.4-5

At the centre of the drama is Joseph, a jaded and dejected young man whose girlfriend’s departure has left him devoid of hope. In the first chapter we witness his botched suicide attempt through the use of gas poisoning and his subsequent realisation that he is still very much apart of the world he detests. The rest of the novel follows him through a recovery of sorts; from the more mainstream (and increasingly popular) methods of psychiatry, to the outrageous (though more helpful?) actions of freeing a badger from the Zoo and sending the President of the United States excrement in the post. I guess everyone has their own way of surviving and for Joseph – whose acute observations of the outside world makes life unbearably hard and paralysing – these small, and somewhat ridiculous, actions have the power to lift his spirits, however slightly. Joseph’s psychiatrist, Ransome, would diagnose him as follows: ‘A good deal of [his] sickness is merely a failure to adjust to the twentieth century’ (pg.63). Perhaps these deliberately ‘immature’ acts are just as much a response to his psychiatrist’s inability to really listen to and hear what he is saying, as it is to keep him sane.

‘The violence and obsession with death and cruelty, in the counterculture and other youth subcultures, is a distorted and far less harmful mirror-image of the institutionalised violence of official culture’.

‘Mutability is Having a Field Day’ from Flesh and the Mirror, Marc O’Day,  Pg. 62

As Marc O’Day in his essay, ‘Mutability is Having a Field Day’, notes in the above passage, Carter makes a clear distinction between the obsession Joseph (a young man living in the counterculture of 1960s England) has with violence and death – pictured in his notebooks filled with newspaper clippings of the Vietnam War and the photo of the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk pasted on the wall of his bare bedsit – and the truly violent actions imposed on those who believe they are defending and helping their country. One of the most distinct passages for me was an image of an American soldier Joseph finds on the newspaper used to wrap up the fish he has just bought for his cat:

‘Now, at less than Joseph’s age, betrayed into murder, he accused the camera with a horrid surprise, bearing his victim in his arms, child and man both lopped trunks of mutilated innocence’.

Several Perceptions, Angela Carter, Pg.83

After the sheer brutality and massacre of two world wars in the first half of the twentieth century, the Vietnam War in the 1960s sees one of the first major media coverages of war, which sparked outrage and protest on a huge scale. These images, that must have been disseminated all over England, pervade Joseph’s conscious and unconscious thoughts. He cannot seem to escape the horrors of war.

Yet, despite the stark and unyielding image Carter has created of life in the 1960s, Several Perceptions ends rather optimistically. Christmas is celebrated in a grand, gothic-style mansion that has been left to the devices of the arty, bohemian subculture, Anne Blossom – the crippled woman who saves Joseph’s life at the beginning of the novel – overcomes her hysterical paralysis, the homeless tramp who wanders around the Downs playing an imaginary fiddle is finally reunited with his instrument and Joseph chooses to be cured:

“Don’t come bothering me’, said Joseph. ‘You are only an emanation, a soothe-me. A soothe-sayer. Go away and look after the sick people’.

Dr Ransome’s kind smile never faltered but his face immediately began to fade away’.

Several Perceptions, Angela Carter, Pg.147

Similar to Shadow Dance, Carter’s debut novel, Several Perceptions is written from the third-person retrospective narration of a male protagonist. Many critics have drawn similarities between Morris, the protagonist of Shadow Dance, and Joseph: ‘Morris, like Joseph, is prey to all kinds of dreams and fantasies: his vision of suicide by gas [...] Joseph, however, crosses the boundaries between health and sickness, neurosis and psychosis, thinking about killing yourself and actually trying it’ (‘Mutability is Having a Field Day’, Marc O’Day, pg.59-60). I think I will have to re-read Shadow Dance again to really notice these nuances and similarities between Carter’s texts.

It is amazing how much she can pack into such slim, and beautifully crafted, novels. They are certainly meant to be read and re-read over and over again.

Texts used:

  • Carter, Angela. Several Perceptions. Virago Press. 1997.
  • O’Day, Marc. ‘Mutability is Having a Field Day’ from Essays on the Art of Angela Carter: Flesh and the Mirror. Sage, Lorna (ed). Virago Press. 2007.

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